With the first Presidential Election since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution less than a month away, questions and concerns remain for the cradle of the Arab Spring.
While the Middle East and North Africa seem to have been in our 24-hour news cycle almost non-stop, coverage of the little Mediterranean nation of Tunisia appears of late to have been eclipsed by its larger, more attention-grabbing neighbours, following its high visibility in sparking the Arab Spring uprisings in January of 2011. Perhaps the world’s interest waned because its revolution did not degenerate into a bloody, protracted internecine conflict, as in Syria and Libya, nor did it have the tumultuous post-revolutionary upheaval as seen in Egypt. In any case, events there as elsewhere wait for no-one, and on October 26, Tunisians held their second parliamentary election since the revolution. One might be forgiven for missing it, as election watchers were perhaps more enticed with the Ukrainian election occurring on the same day.

So as the rest of the post-Arab Spring countries either settled back into their security-state ensured status quo, or tore themselves apart in civil conflicts, Tunisia and its people quietly (or perhaps relatively more quietly) began restructuring their society and modes of governance, holding elections, drafting a constitution, and weathering political assassinations and divisive party politics alike.

Questions abound following the parliamentary elections, and with just under three weeks to go before the country’s first presidential elections on November 23, Tunisia will be a country worth watching, if one were not already doing so. Despite its apparent uniqueness in the Arab world of weathering the first steps of democratization, it still faces numerous threats similar from many of its neighbours, chiefly economic doldrums, and Islamic extremism. The course of events since the revolution gives hope however, that it might yet face down its current challenges, with the sort of consensus based politicking that the country’s first elected government, led by the Islamist Ennahda Movement (also known as the Renaissance Party), sought to promote.
The Islamist Ennahda party would have a turbulent first few years in the driver’s seat of Tunisian politics, but they defied expectations by creating coalitions with secular parties, and further by largely affirming many of Tunisia’s progressive laws with regards to women, minorities, and domestic laws. It was not a period of time without incident however, with violent mobs, accusations of collusion with extremist groups, and two assassinations of opposition politicians by extremists, one of which was the leader of the left-wing opposition coalition, saw resentment against Ennahda (perceived to have connections with more radical Islamist groups) rise and political stability stagger, but Ennahda and the other political parties managed to keep the lid on and ride out the storm.
Most notably, Ennahda peacefully conceded power to a caretaker government in January 2014 in order to secure the passage of the new constitution, the product of two years of political debate and haggling over almost every clause and sentence. With expansions of civil liberties and the role of women in Tunisian society, it was widely lauded by those still paying attention to the ongoing change in Tunisia.

Members of the Ennahda party in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Despite its continual apparent commitment to the political process, Ennahda’s lack of any former Ben-Ali-regime-insiders, while making it a popular pick in the post-revolutionary election, made it inexperienced and perhaps ineffective when it came to dealing with matters of state such as the economy or questions of security. This will be returned to.
All of this lead up to the crucial next step, a second round of elections (already postponed from last year), with parliamentary elections having been held at the end of October, and the presidential election slated for the end of November. It should be noted how low the bar is for democratizing states, as a second election is often much farther than most states get, Tunisia passed Samuel Huntington’s two-turnover test. The parliamentary elections saw a reversal of Ennahda’s fortunes, and the rise of the Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) party, made up of a patchwork of secular liberals, leftists, and including elements of l’ancien regime, the old Constitutional Democratic Rally of former President for life Ben Ali. Nidaa Tounes won 85 out of the 217 seats up for contest on Sunday, beating out Ennahda who came in second with 69.
However, in spite of the secularists’ victory at the polling stations at the end of October, serious issues persist, and questions remain unanswered. Youth unemployment, cited as one of the major causes of unrest in the 2010-2011 Jasmine Revolution which sparked the Arab Spring, remains distressingly high, at 34 percent. This, alongside the economic stagnation that set in post-2011 can be seen to arise from the flight in Foreign Direct Investment in light of the instability in the country, as well as the evaporation of Tunisia’s biggest economic driver, tourism, for the same reasons. Indeed, it is likely that Ennahda’s relative loss at the parliamentary elections can be set down to their perceived mishandling of the economy.
In any event, Nidaa Tounes will still need to form a coalition. The question becomes whether the secularists will include the Islamists. If the Islamists are excluded, it could deepen fissures in Tunisian society. This is compounded with the fact that Ennahda earlier committed to not run a candidate in the presidential elections coming in November. As the sole real force for political Islam in Tunisia, whatever role Ennahda will play in the next few years will at most be a secondary one. Marginalization of an Islamic voice in Tunisia could result in a loss of faith in democracy for Islamist and salafist groups already skeptical of the process.
This is highlighted with disturbing figures and issues surrounding still more radical extremism active in Tunisia. Reports of the arrests of over 1,500 “suspected jihadists” so far this year, in addition to estimates that around 2,400 Tunisians have allegedly traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State’s war (a higher contribution than any other country), raise fears of emboldened extremist groups. Further, Tunisians must deal with their own insurgent jihadist groups active within the country, such as the Tunisia wing of the Ansar al-Sharia group. Six alleged militants were killed by Tunisian Forces on the Friday before the Parliamentary elections after exchanging fire with the Tunisian military.
It is not all bad news however. There are some optimistic reports that seem to hail Tunisia’s economic revival as being right around the corner. Citing Tunisia’s stiff commitment to reforms thus far, and dogged determination in weathering political storms, investor confidence may be on the rebound. Canada and other investing countries have an opportunity to help spur the Tunisian recovery and stabilization process through direct investment and support of civic institutions. Notably, the negotiations toward a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement between Canada and Tunisia are ongoing.
In spite of the still immense challenges facing the country, Tunisia represents an enormous opportunity, a demonstration of political pluralism in a region sorely lacking examples. Indeed, the organic, bottom-up revolution and subsequent political opening could serve as a possible model of democracy and pluralism for the region, fulfilling one of the roles that the Bush presidency hoped that post-Saddam Hussein Iraq would fill for the Arab world. The externally imposed democratic regime in Iraq has, to put it as gently as current circumstances may permit, failed abysmally. Tunisia’s future is still up in the air, but perhaps most importantly, it still appears to lie with its people.

Featured Photo by Chen Lin.


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